Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: The Incrementalists

The Incrementalists Steven Brust Skyler White cover revealThe Concept

You've seen the one about the big, long-enduring, highly organized secret society committed to maintaining a secret lock on the world's key resources.  And you've seen the one about the secret organization that just got ready to launch its long-prepared bid for dominance of the world.  But Steven Brust and Skyler White don't recycle either in The Incrementalists.  The Incrementalists comprise a scrappy little (dis)organization whose uncoordinated efforts focus on tiny actions to make the world a little better.

Isn't that a change from the secret plotting you're used to being led to believe is behind ancient secret organizations that wield weird powers over the mortal realm?

It's about time.

The Plot
Once you've been introduced to a leaderless band of potentially long-lived personalities, you have to start wondering what happens when they disagree with or misunderstand one another.  And guess what?  The confusion generated by their misunderstandings and disagreements immediately reveals mysteries the reader wants to see solved.  Who killed Celeste?  Who's after Ren?  Why?  The Incrementalists presents a mystery, and an adventure:  come join a secret society that's being torn up over your joining it.  Some of whom blame you.


The Pace
The pace isn't a Dan Brown thriller's:  The Incrementalists' conflict is largely mental.  Who's the victim, who's fooling whom, who really loves whom, who's the villain hiding from whom and where … and behind everything: why?  There aren't so much car chases and shootouts as arguments and poisonings.  In comparison to other Brust books, this is paced much more like Dzur than, say, Jhereg. The Incrementalists' pace feels suited to a story about people who are trying to remain secret, and show real antipathy for unnecessarily being made to expend effort to keep hidden, when there's something interesting that'd be more fun to do instead.

Pretty soon, the reader is treated to debates about the merits of attempted revolution, and whether shadowy organizations should Save The Known World (for some definition of "Save", if you can sort out just what that means – the characters are refreshingly willing to disagree what that means). The tale teeters as if it might careen into a big story about a battle for control over the future of humanity.  But panic within the Incrementalists' own order derails debate.  The bulk of The Incrementalists is about individuals and their fears, not some scheme to save the world. 

Sure, the characters have ideas how best to save the world.  There ideas fuel suspicions, but not the immediate conflict.  It's about the Incrementalists themselves, and how they conflict with one another.  And the fun in that is exactly that it's new:  we've seen secret societies used to fuel battles for control of the world before, and we will see them again – this is a chance to enjoy a story about people who are fighting to survive the secret society from the inside.

The Plausibility
Look here.  I've already compared this to Dzur and then Jhereg, and you want to hear about plausibility?  Please.  It's a fantasy.  People with super-normal powers, plotting.  Entertainingly, they seem to want to plot for humanity.  But the fact that the world in it contains cities with names we know and technologies with which we're familiar doesn't mean it's really the world we know.

Of course, there is the wonderful fourth-wall-breaking self-referential fun at the end – maybe they want to meddle in our world as much as their own.  It's fun.

And on that point …

The Politics
One probably shouldn't need a content warning in fantasy.  And The Incrementalists isn't about politics.  But I will make what I hope is a short note for those who aren't predisposed to enjoy a story with this politics in the scenery.  In my review of Cracked, I included a similar warning to those readers who turned on Jim Butcher when religion appeared in his Dresden Files, and said that Cracked's religious content ratcheted up much more quickly: readers too thin-skinned about religion to tolerate its presence (even in the context of a story that treats with equal seriousness the politics among faeries and the purpose of the Winter Queen) should be aware before reading that characters are motivated by and believe in some real-world religious tenets.  A similar situation exists in The Incrementalists, but with politics.

So here it is.  The Incrementalists is full of characters who are interested in making the world better.  A few of these characters espouse … (surprise!) … political convictions.  And the authors don't make the heavens fall on them as a result.

Now, the plot doesn't turn on politics or their correctness (though if it had turned into a world-domination thriller it certainly could have), so a reader needn't adopt a single political view in the book to enjoy the characters' mystery or its investigation or the ensuing conflicts and their resolution.  You should be just fine.  But if you're particularly sensitive … well, be warned the characters have political views, and assign good and bad values to historic events that involve politics.  And it shows up in more subtle ways: a main character is shown using PowerPoint for work, but Google products in her off-hours.  She's described as once accusing a boss of making Gates look like Stallman.  Details of this sort are part of how the character is sketched.  You don't need to put the GNU license on your own code to enjoy the book, though.  So, like … chill.

If you want to read a Brust fantasy in which the politics of the people out to save the world don't remind you of the things that bother you about the politics in the world you know, consider his hilarious and fun homage to Alexander Dumas, The Phoenix Guards.  Or – set in the same world – most of the books about Vlad Taltos (Brust's character Khaavren, appearing in both, shows up in this site's sidebar among my favorite characters).

The Point
The Incrementalists involves a new superpower, with new types of things to go wrong.  And its structure isn't a retread of some well-established world-domination plot.  In fact, the main characters' biggest disagreement in life seems to be how best to save humanity.  The conflict between good people about how to do good is a change from the war against Voldemort and his hoards of power-hungry thugs.

It'd spoil the story to describe in much detail what the story is about.  But it's no danger to expose that it follows people who struggle with whom to trust, whom to love, whom to protect, whom to attack … and whether to act at all.  Maybe it's new in defining a new set of rules for the superpower that makes the Incrementalists work as an organization, but let's face it:  in dealing with human failings and human struggles, it's very old indeed.  The authors' decisions whom to make antagonists and how to motivate them say some important things about what they think the real problems in the world are – problems much more basic than – and beyond – politics.  The authors avoid intercontinental battles for world domination to comment on what's worth fighting for – and worth living for.

It's not by chance that one of Brust's characters sits on the right of every page of this site on a list of all-time favorite characters.  Are there more exciting page-turners?  Sure.  But a good character is worth her weight in gold.  How much of The Incrementalists do you spend fearing for Ren?  And why?  How much of the book do you spend hoping one of the do-gooders will figure out what the only obviously good thing to do is?  What (beyond the fact they aren't reading her first-person narrative) keeps them from seeing what they should be doing about her situation?  These questions are much more important to the story than whether some world power will be nudged into nuclear disarmament.

The Incrementalists says something about personal values, priorities, or character.  Maybe it'll assure you what you treasure most in your life is treasured even by immortal superheroes, and you have it made already.  Maybe it'll remind you of your own struggle to conquer the only part of the known universe that matters.  The point of The Incrementalists isn't to explain how to save the world, but how a few people fought to save themselves – and, maybe how everyone can.

It's a murder mystery with no corpse and an adventure without leaving town and it's a lot of fun.  It's absolutely worth reading. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Crewe's Cracked

Eliza Crewe's new novel Cracked kicks off a series whose protagonist Meda has an appetite for eating souls. Well, life force, at least.  As one might expect, she promptly meets people not particularly excited about the protagonist roaming free, sating her appetite without oversight.  But the story is not just a getting-away-from-capture tale; it's Meda's journey to discover the world about her and its perils, and to learn what she is and where she came from.

Meda's snark, sass, and disinterest in traditional hero activities make her an entertaining departure from the evil-vanquishing fantasies we grew up expecting.  She's perfectly happy to attack from behind or kill those she's rendered helpless, and she's unafraid to admit these things to the reader even though she's very careful to hide the truth from those she meets.

The book doesn't depend on the novelty of a killer protagonist, though.  The hungry huntress has been long depicted in vampire fiction, after all.  But Cracked doesn't give off a vampire vibe;  there's a much closer parallel to Meda in character feeling. It's not far into the book that one is tempted to think about Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter and its protagonist's similarly insatiable need to murder.  Sure, Meda and Dexter are driven differently.  But how differently, really? Each is subject to an awful compulsion to kill, and neither perceives much of a choice.  Each plans with patience, and takes a certain delight in the work.  Both appeal to the reader in part because they've initially resolved to hunt only confirmed bad-guys. Both confront circumstances in which it'd be terribly convenient to kill a witness for convenience.  And both have a keen interest in avoiding capture because neither has any real expectation of being vindicated if caught.  Both begin basically alone, unaided in the fight to remain alive and free while sating a hunger that inspires vicious crimes.

But Meda and Dexter Morgan have very different journeys.

In Dexter, the humor is largely carried by the narrator's obliviousness to human feelings. Not so Cracked.  Meda, the narrator, is well aware of how humans feel – she feels it all herself.  Instead of inspiring laughs with an oblivious confusion over the meaning of human interactions, she entertains readers with a combination of remorselessness and deep empathy with her victim.  She follows this with shameless readiness to display over-the-top manipulation of musclebound males who want to believe she's "good" inside.  The real good guys, out to destroy soul-eating evildoers everywhere they can be found, end up eating out of her hand.


If this were all Cracked offered, it might end at a fun romp.  But it doesn't.  At seventeen and lonely, Meda ends up genuinely connecting with some of the companions/adversaries/friends she meets.  The complexity of their relationship provides readers good fun.  Meda's desire to learn who she is and what the forces are that seem arrayed against her is a convincing basis for her willing (and overconfident) acceptance of an adventure that turns out to be much more than she expected.  On the way she learns the difference between people who like her and people who understand her;  she grows as she feels for herself how friendship, values, and love make life worth living.  A loner, Meda's sucked into circumstances that require her to trust or die – and to inspire trust or be destroyed.  Meda learns to be the human she pretends.

In that way, Cracked is a supernatural fairy tale about what it's like to be normal, and how magical it is to have a friend.  It's easy to cry reading it.  When the hour ran late, I had a hard time putting it down. I think readers will enjoy it.

[spoiler] Content Warning: Religious Belief
Cracked Cover in IndiaSome fans protest loudly when an urban fantasy author includes elements of mainstream religion without immediately punishing proponents of such beliefs for foolishness or the like.  For example, Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files contains a cast of characters that includes Christians whose faith plays a significant role in their lives and their superpowers; the series eventually depicts supernatural beings that are fallen angels, demons, angels in good standing, etc. I kidded in a review of Butcher's work that complaints about religion in urban fantasy were hard to credit in the midst of a story that treated with equal seriousness subjects like the Laws of Magic and the politics among faeries. But, beware: readers who were irritated with Jim Butcher over theological commentary may find themselves extremely exercised as Cracked progresses.  Sure, it opens on an irreligious murderess occupied at the task of luring a victim into her trap, but it's not long until the author begins depicting The Battle Between Good And Evil, complete with demons and holy warriors.  Although this also occurs in The Dresden Files, this development occurs over the course of several novels;  it happens much faster in Cracked – and doesn't have wizards and vampires and faeries to distract people from the religious aspect of the underlying conflict.  The book's cover in India (on right) gives better notice of this.  (Both covers are available on the author's press page.)

I'm not particularly fond of reading material designed primarily to appeal to religious convictions, but I tolerated The Chronicles of Narnia and love The Dresden Fines. I had no trouble enjoying Cracked.  If you gave up on The Dresden Files over religious content, though, Cracked may not be your cup of tea.
[/End Spoiler]

BONUS: Cracked vs. Dexter
It's tempting to say Cracked differs from the Dexter novels in being urban fantasy.  But is it true that Dexter is not urban fantasy? Lindsay's third book [SPOILER for Dexter, not Cracked] Dexter in the Dark outs Dexter Morgan as the vessel of an immortal being related to Moloch, the ancient deity who sacrificially consumed immolated children, and whom the Israelites were eventually barred from propitiating.  So Dexter Morgan is ultimately depicted as possessing supernatural powers on loan from an ancient unkillable psychopathic intelligence to which he plays host – it is this that is his Dark Passenger.  Without his Dark Passenger, Dexter just isn't the cold calculating killer we knew; he's uncertain, lost.  But for the reader of the Dexter novels, this development doesn't result in the feeling of Urban Fantasy; it's a crime thriller.  Only, reversed: the "protagonist" is the serial-murdering psychopath trying to avoid capture by "normals" whose motives and moral decay make them less honest and more offensive than many of the criminals they pursue.

A problem of this nature faces the narrator in Cracked, too. Unlike Dexter Morgan, Meda seems to like having friends – and not just as camouflage. But she's fallen in with a bunch of evildoer-hunters who don't seem likely to embrace an addicted soul-eater with no hope of being reformed … and these new companions include people who'd apparently be perfectly happy to kill her for thrills. (Or misdirected vengeance? Or zealous rage? Meda doesn't review their psychiatric records once she takes their temperature.).  Like Dexter Morgan amongst the Miami P.D., Meda among her new companions seems continuously at risk of discovery and destruction.  The fact that she feels emotions and can have human interactions, like normal humans, makes her more sympathetic than Dexter Morgan, whose support from the reader seems generated largely by a combination of (a) a conviction the other monsters are worse, (b) a hope his hunts will safe the people about whom readers care, and (c) a perverse thrill at rooting for – let's face it – a dyed-in-the wool villain.

Craft Notes
As one who writes (though mostly not fiction), I was interested to see a tale told in present tense.  As I've written short pieces in present tense, I appreciate both its limits and the gymnastics occasionally required to make sure the reader can see everything the author requires to follow the story.  Doing a novel like this, breaking into past only for reflection on the past or where characters would use the past in dialogue, is impressive.  The limits of the first-person voice and present tense are interesting constraints in which to work – and it is work.  I did spot one past-tense verb committed by a late-appearing character during the denouement, but it's not a cheat on the decision to go present tense: it's almost assuredly an error.  Everybody gets a couple.  This is no big deal.  And it's probably easy for the reader to miss entirely.

The front cover of the ARC warned that reviewers should not review on the basis of seeming errors, and should check that text didn't change in final before reviewing on the basis of the ARC text.  Unfortunately I've been unable to get the busy editors to respond to my email.  They are, you know, busy putting out books.  It's not like I can gripe.  So I don't know whether a continuity concern in the first half persists into final.  What I do know is that while it's not unexpected to see some kind of issue to pick at in a first novel, it is unexpected to find myself unable to put down someone's first novel down at 1:38 AM.  So you can see the net effect of my "concern" didn't impact my interest in finishing it. 


Cracked sets up a series about character redeemed by her friendships, and grounded by the people she values rather than by rules (which she doesn't).  It depicts a world in which The Forces of Good depend on teenage reprobates skilled in slipping locks, breaking and entering, and clipping fence-chains on others' property.  God help the people.

Cracked is a fun read.  The sass, the frienemy-ships, Meda's heartless manipulations of others and the ever-present risk of being caught – all fun. The big battle's turning point is foreshadowed hard enough to make it not only easy to believe, but to have readers dying to see the characters put in a position to pull it off.  This prevents it from constituting a surprise twist, but it builds good anticipation for the moment of choice – will the characters trust each other enough to try?  Or will feelings of betrayal poison their prospects? So non-surprise is not a problem: predicting how the tables will turn isn't really what the show is about.  The show is about what choices Meda will make when it really counts, and why.  And whether, in the end, she's learned to be human enough to love.  The consistency concern I have doesn't detract from the climactic choice or how it is made: events leading up to the scene plausibly place all the characters in a plausible position of doubt and desperation so the reader sees the right choice isn't easy (and why the easy choice is useless).  There may be bumps on the road, but the journey is enjoyable.

I'm happy I read Cracked, and look forward to Eliza Crewe's next in her soul-eaters series.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Soviet Traditions Alive and Well in Russian Penal System

Old traditions die hard.  At Mordovia camp, a penal colony operated by the current government of Russia, deputy chief of the facility Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov declared to a recent inmate, "I am a Stalinist." 

Traditions like ignoring regulations to impose 16-hour workdays and mandatory punitive periods standing in the cold have driven the inmate into a hunger strike as described in a letter translated for The Guardian.  Group punishments, punishment for association with politically charged inmates, punishments that deprive one's friends of parole or get them beaten, punishments administered by inmates put in charge of other inmates and left unsupervised … the results are predictable.

It's a sad commentary on life under a state without an enforceable law or enforceable rights.  It's a situation that's becoming all too common in the modern world, and is with disturbing regularity discovered in places where one would like to find real rights, Constitutional protections, and so forth.

What are rights without meaningful enforcement?

It's not surprising to hear, but it's sad.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How I Spent A Night Addicted To Crewe's Cracked

This is The Jaded Consumer, and I'm a book addict.  Heh.

I've written a review of Eliza Crewe's Cracked.  My review was longer than the "I loved it" at The Book Smugglers, but mine's not up yet. The ARC on which mine was based contained a warning about the possibility that changes might appear in the final version, and to check with the publisher before reporting on certain things.  So, it waits while I wait for a response on some questions to the publisher about whether certain elements were altered in the final version.

But I can share that I couldn't easily put it down.  Sure, I managed to do so long enough to feign normalcy in connection with some social obligations, but it didn't take.  Unwillingness to stop reading at 1:38 PM gets you a different look than does unwillingness to stop reading at 1:38 AM, which is when I noticed the time.  Not that I was done yet.

Cracked didn't brook interruption well.  I have a longer review coming, but the short answer is that it was a lot of fun.  The Book Smugglers has a few days left on a Cracked book giveaway, so if you like urban fantasy you know where to go.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

If You Clap, Tinkerbell Will Beat D.C. With A Clue Stick

Granted, my relationship with Harley Quinn is grounded in the televised Animated Series.  And granted, I'm not one of the people to whom D.C. is selling its attempted-suicide issue of Harley Quinn.  But D.C. has probably reached a new low in trying to raise awareness of and interest in its comics by inviting fans to submit naked-suicide-attempt-preparation drawings of The Joker's madcap minion.  Since it's asking for submissions of four suicide scenarios, it's likely these panels represent alternatives she will reject in favor of a more direct strategy to confront the source of her ills. Like, say, ditching The Joker to take off on her own as a freelance villain, which would explain why there's a new Harley Quinn comic coming.  But the eye-rollingness of delivering Harley Quinn fanservice in the form of her naked body in a bathtub situated beneath an array of power-on toasters, blenders, blow-driers, and preparing to pull the drop-cord ... it's in outstanding bad taste even for an industry already so famous for unrealistic fanservice poses that it's got a lampoon blog all its own.

Some fans are, not unexpectedly, put out by D.C.'s latest tasteless gaffe.  The last link also illustrates D.C.'s effort to transition Harley Quinn from the lithe pixielike character who seemed to find a way to show innocent fun through all the awful crimes in which she was involved, into a hypersexualized object of the sort generally lampooned at Escher Girls. The start of the new comic – as a fanservice machine – isn't exactly the most auspicious way to start the series.

Re-envisioning the slight Harley Quinn as a valkyrie with a man-crushing hammer and a big bust bursting from her brassiere is, to me, all the promise this reader needs that the comic's gone wrong.  We've already got butch babes in Wonder Woman, She-Hulk, Red Sonja, and a whole host of others … why not let the one clever little girl show the world what clever is worth?  Why not have a comic book that busts its chops to be … you know … comic?

But, no.  D.C. has made a marketing decision that girls must bear big boobs, and she's got to be naked in the bathtub as soon as possible.


Why We Have Divorce

Nobody goes around claiming to be pro-divorce, but there's a reason no-fault divorce is an important right.  The couple in Montana whose marriage of one week was terminated in a clifftop homicide should be a lesson why people need to understand their options.

No guns. No drugs. Just "reservations" about being married that led a woman to text her friend "Oh well, I'm about to talk to him" then "But dead serious if u don't hear from me at all again tonight, something happened" before she shoved her new husband over the cliff to his death.

Of course, that's according to the criminal indictment. Time will tell.  But … seriously, people.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Apple's Next Ad

Maybe not really the next ad, but ...
... and maybe it'll be prescribed as durable medical equipment for those with impotence.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Microsoft's New Margins Strategy

There's nothing like buying a money-losing hardware vendor to improve margins at an over-the-hill software powerhouse.  Right?

In what may be Ballmer's latest best idea for Microsoft (his last best idea, retiring, worked like a charm), he's moving Microsoft from subsidizing its hardware partner's operations by $1B/year to paying money to accept all Nokia's losses.

Anyone care to guess how this turns out, in a world already well-occupied with successful incumbent vendors?  It's competing with Google, which is happy to give away its platform and is also selling hardware.  (See the Jaded Consumer article at Seeking Alpha, part One and part Two.)  Smartphones is a dog-eat-dog world, and Microsoft is charging into the teeth of high-volume vendors like Samsung with a product it must price to compete with feature phones … or actually sell feature phones.  But fear not.  It's not like Microsoft's never tried selling phones before.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Scalzi's Redshirts Takes 2013 Hugo, And No Surprise

Although you might have missed it if depending on Siri ...

... WorldCon 2013 ended yesterday.  (The above text reflects the results of asking for first WorldCon Twenty-Thirteen then asking for WorldCon Two Thousand Thirteen. And no, I've never heard anybody refer to a time of day with thousands.)

Hosted by Lone Star Con 3 in Austin, Texas, the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention was (as each is) also the place to be to see the Hugo Awards announced.  This year, those of us who'd read John Scalzi's Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas were completely unsurprised to learn it was voted Best Novel.  On the one hand, it enjoys much that went right in Galaxy Quest's awesome sendup of Star Trek – the main characters are surprised to find they're living the fiction that's been off the air for years, and it's not a happy surprise to discover they face real risks – but on the other it mixes the horror of being a bit character in a story about somebody else, the writers of which are fond of killing extras for dramatic impact while exploring the characters' desperate efforts to keep their sanity, and safety, in a world gone mad.  And it asks some interesting questions:  who are the bit characters in life?  Who's this story really about?  Geeks with a thing for fiction will enjoy the three endings, each told not only from a different point of view but from a different person.  It's a fun Trek spoof and a serious story and an intellectual riddle and it's the winner of the 2013 Hugo Award.  Those of you who haven't had a chance to enjoy this one can get Redshirts' first four chapters from Amazon free, right here.

As for the rest of the 2013 Hugo winners ... I now have my autumn reading list.